It is a winter Wednesday evening, 6th January 2021, in the middle of a global pandemic and national lockdown and we are all glued to our screens. We are stunned, scared and horrified as we watch the United States Capitol building - the pinnacle of western democracy - being stormed by pro-Trump supporters, turned rioters. There is a dystopian sense of chaos; the Confederate flag is being waved inside the building, men proudly wear T-shirts with the slogan ‘Camp Auschwitz’ and ‘6MWE’ (‘6 Million wasn’t enough’), people are everywhere, shots are fired, four people end up dead. We are shocked. But should we be?
Yesterday it was reported that amongst the protestors who stormed the Capitol building were members of far-right groups, Neo-Nazis, QAnon figureheads and followers, as well as “stand back and stand by” Proud Boys. These far-right groups have been steadily growing and becoming more violent over the past four years - as we saw in Charlottesville in 2017. They have been emboldened by a leadership that time and time again has failed to denounce a concerning return to widespread far-right ideologies in the mainstream of America’s public discourse. They deal in conspiracy theories and these are being passed around like old Pokemon cards in the playground, going from one pocket to the next.
The man you can't help but notice on screen, in his fur hat and horns, is Jake Angeli. Angeli is the self-proclaimed ‘shaman’ of QAnon. He has a large social media following with whom he shares conspiracy theories. QAnon regurgitates historical conspiracy theories and links them to contemporary events. Many might have dismissed this as futile chatter in online chat rooms but as we saw recently, hate that is incited online can manifest in real life in dangerous, and in this case deadly, attacks.
Source: The Telegraph
A new report by Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) uncovers the true threat to democracy and social stability conspiracy theories are causing. The report divides the threat of QAnon into three main categories including mobilising and encouraging extreme violence, spreading misinformation particularly related to antisemitic conspiracy theories and creating and exacerbating cultural, political and social divisions. All three themes echoed through the halls of the Capitol this week, trampling on the sanctity of democracy.
In a year where we have spent more time online than ever before, conspiracy theories have found the perfect breeding ground to flourish. People around the world have been feeling vulnerable, scared and anxious due to the Covid-19 pandemic; seeking community, answers and at times, recrimination. Many have been led down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.
What is important to understand is that all of these are connected, each lead to the next, and the jump from being an anti-masker to storming the US Capitol building is far shorter than many would imagine. Covid-19 is a hoax, virus spreading 5G masts, blaming minority groups such as Jews and Muslims for the spread of the virus…these all sit right next to each other just one step away from the ‘Great Replacement theory’ (where Jews are accused of fabricating a virus for the purpose of collapsing the economy, creating financial gain, and ultimately replacing the ‘White race’). These theories, all linked to each other, fuel populism and violent behaviours that when unchallenged, can result in the astonishing scenes witnessed in the Capitol.
But, you may ask, what can I do about all this?
In all of our school sessions we empower young people to report hate crime. Initially, our students think we only refer to street-level attacks, but when asked if they see hate crime online, the entire classroom puts their hands up; every single time.
This is why it is essential to report conspiracy theories online; because whilst platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become increasingly more efficient and thorough in removing online hate, there is still a lot of work to do. Because we now know that somebody who posts a seemingly innocuous article about the dangers of a Covid vaccine, is probably already reading the next article about another conspiracy theory, in an echo chamber from which it seems impossible to escape.
Each one of us can have an impact; each one of us can be an Upstander, each one of us can challenge something they see in the knowledge of the devastating snowball effect conspiracy theories can have if they are left unchallenged.
As we saw all too clearly on Wednesday, the online world directly affects the real world. We all have a duty to challenge prejudice both off and online, ensuring that the platforms we are using are inclusive and safe for all of us.
If you report a post online and it isn’t removed you can send a screenshot to any of the below organisations who are dedicated to supporting specific communities:
Galop: LGBTQ+ hate
Tell MAMA: Anti-Muslim Hate
True Vision: for all forms of racism